A while ago I wrote about reading The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen with my son. It was astonishingly good. We Are All Made of Molecules is Susin Nielsen’s most recent book. I borrowed it from the library when my daughter had the flu; I thought she might like a few extra books to read while she recuperated.
We Are All Made of Molecules, is a story that tells a very clear message: that we are all made of molecules. We are the same, we all matter, we all deserve to be treated equally and with respect. And, not only do we need to know this, we need to act on it.
The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. [Albert Einstein]
Stewart (a young 13) is academically gifted, but not socially. And he knows this. He is very aware that he is an easy target. Fortunately, he has had parents who love and support him and this has given him a confidence that he will need. Then his mother dies and he and his father have to figure out how to live without her.
… just because you feel sad sometimes, doesn’t mean that you can’t also be happy.
Stewart’s father, Leonard, eventually starts seeing Caroline, and they end up moving in with Caroline and her daughter, Ashley.
Ashley is 14, her parents have just divorced because her father has announced that he is gay. She is at the top of the social ladder at school and is very concerned that she stay there. At all costs. She’s nasty to her parents, she’s mean to her friends, and she’s awful to her new step-brother Stewart. He embarrasses her. She is also ashamed of the fact that her father is gay, even though she had never before thought of herself as homophobic. She tries to keep this fact from her friends, and her new boyfriend, Jared.
Jared is where things get ugly. And intense – the word my daughter uses to describe the mounting tension as Ashley’s determination to stay popular escalates.
He’s got psycho eyes. You know, like he’s kind of dead inside. Like he’s constantly trying to figure out how a normal person would act.
This book explores themes and situations that many kids are facing all the time (not mine, though. Never mine). And it doesn’t shy away from the terrifying reality of the internet. Bullying, homophobia, sexual assault, cyber-bullying, and the importance of consent. As was the case in The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, a powerful book about the consequences of bullying, Nielsen writes about these issues with insight and humour. In fact, it was hard for me to imagine that the story could get as intense as my daughter ensured me that it would, because of Nielsen’s light touch. For example, Ashley is talented in some ways, but not in others, and she is continuously using the wrong words; “joie de beaver”, “high school is a doggy-dog world”, “taken for granite”. She also is forever forgetting the name of Stewart’s cat, Schrodinger, and instead calls him Shopping Cart, Shoe Box, Shoo-fly, etc.
Some reviewers on Goodreads don’t like that Ashley comes off as dumb, but why not? when the message of the book is that everyone belongs despite our differences. Some complain that Ashley and Stewart seem too young for their age, but I don’t agree. 14 and 13 is young (so young!), which is why life at that age can be so hard (and scary) at times.
Ashley has to make some hard decisions, and come to discover some truths about herself that she may not like. Stewart is there to help her (whether she likes it or not), while dealing with his own challenges of starting a new school and fitting in with a new family, while still grieving for his mother. Stewart is an exceptional kid.
As I was reading this book, I told my daughter that I couldn’t believe that Ashley could possibly change all that much by the end of the book. She was so unlikeable and the book was too short for that kind of transformation. But I should have had as much faith in Nielsen as she has in kids and what they are capable of. I encourage you to read this and see for yourself why my daughter and I both give this book a ‘thumb’s up’. (And now I’m hoping that she will be able to avoid making all the same mistakes that Ashley made. That’s not too much to ask, is it?)